The new priest of Ambricourt doesn't look healthy - he wipes perspiration off his brow and rests his bicycle against a wide steel gate. There's an older gentleman and younger woman hidden on the other side of the gate, they watch him ride away, worriedly - did he see them?
The man is local nobility. The young woman is his daughter's governess. His daughter disapproves of the affair. His wife is long past caring. They all attend the local church, and this new priest considers their souls to be his responsibility.
It's a heavy burden, since most of the townspeople of Ambricourt are indifferent to salvation, and actively dislike him. They think he's a drunk; his monastic diet of bread and wine might be a nod to Holy Communion or just a compulsion that he can't shake. In either case, he doesn't think he's a drunk. The audience draws their own conclusion.
The films of Robert Bresson are austere models of restraint, which perfectly suits this adaptation of Georges Bernanos' novel. Bresson was an agnostic but insisted that his cast be deeply religious, resulting in a film about faith and God which somehow manages to avoid being dogmatic or preachy. “Diary of a Country Priest” could have been a preachy and sentimental film, but Bresson manages to strip the story down to the bare essentials, both visually and textually.
Criterion's transfer shows the high contrast black-and-white almost flawlessly (some streaks appear in some of the darker shots), and the soundtrack is crisp without being hissy or too treble. The supplements are superlative - the liner notes reprint Frederic Bonnaud's 1999 Film Comment essay, illustrating Bresson's influences in (and upon) French cinema, and his unusual casting choices (including a psychiatrist who agreed to the film on the condition that he could use a nom de plume in the credits).
The commentary track by Peter Cowie is even better, touching on Bernanos' life story, the differences and similarities between his novel and Bresson's film, how Louis Malle used “Diary” as the source of his entry exam to film school, what happened to Bresson's cast and crew (including many non-actors), and simultaneously discussing the numerous themes of the film in cinematic and religious terms as related to the political climate of France at the time. Whew.
This is a very cerebral supplement, and it might be overwhelming for anyone not familiar with film criticism. But don't let the heavy content discourage you- the film is outstanding, the supplements are illuminating, and even the trailer is good. It's cinema that makes you think, in a package that respects the message. Highly recommended.
Other Robert Bresson titles released by Criterion include "Au Hasard Balthazar," "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," and Pickpocket."
© 2004 Michael John Derbecker